The Caffrey Conversation

A/N: Originally posted in 2013. Updated in 2021 with minor revisions, to remove the abandoned "alternate ending" and to add a bonus chapter showing what Sara was up to while Neal went to St. Louis.

This is the first story in a pre-series AU where Peter recruits Neal in 2003 instead of arresting him.

Prologue

Burke Residence, Brooklyn, NY. September 2003. (Six years before the White Collar pilot episode aired)

"James Bonds?" Elizabeth read the words over her husband's shoulder as she handed him a beer and sat beside him on their living room sofa. "That's quite a name. Does he live up to it?"

Peter Burke muted the baseball game and turned to the first page in the FBI case file he'd been reading. He handed her a black-and-white photo of a dark-haired man in a suit. "We picked the name because he's a bond forger. At the time we didn't know his real name, or what he looked like."

"But obviously that's changed," Elizabeth said. "Is this a recent photo?"

"About four months old. Why?"

"Well, he just looks awfully young to have such a thick file." She returned the photo to the file and then paged through it, reaching a bond certificate. "You've brought this home before."

"Yeah, about a year ago, when we got word of forged bond certificates being cashed. The bonds were supposedly forgery-proof. He popped up on our radar again a few months ago, with a series of cons, frauds, thefts, and forgeries."

"A renaissance criminal."

"He'd probably enjoy being called that," Peter said. "He seems to have a fondness for renaissance art. At least, that's what I'm gathering from the latest Interpol reports. He's been in Europe recently."

"If he's outside of your jurisdiction, why are you studying his file?"

"He'll be back. Neal Caffrey – we're pretty sure that's his real name – treats New York as his home base."

"Then you'll catch him," Elizabeth said matter-of-factly. When Peter sighed in response, she closed the case file and tossed it on the coffee table. "All right, clearly something about Neal Caffrey is getting to you. What is it?"

"This guy's smart. He's suspected of an impressive number of crimes but doesn't leave much in the way of evidence. It's not just a matter of catching him, El. We have to gather enough evidence to convict him. He's so charming that a jury will love him, making it vital to have overwhelming, irrefutable evidence. Even then, he'll probably get a light sentence. And you're right, he's young. He'll get out again soon and be back to his old tricks in no time."

She took him by surprise with her follow-up question. "How do you know he's charming?"

"I've spoken to him, twice now. First was outside a bank; I had no idea who he was at the time, just thought he was a random citizen curious to meet an FBI agent. Then about a month ago he called my cell phone while I was on a stakeout. It should have been annoying. Hell, it is annoying, but for the wrong reasons. It seems like such a waste. With his intelligence, his talents, all of that potential... Why is he wasting his life on crime and eventual prison time?"

"Why don't you ask him? You know, the next time he calls. Have a conversation; find out what's motivating him."

"And what, reform him?"

"Well, not in a single phone call, no. But try to find out what it would take to convince him to change his ways. Offer him an alternative. You could use his talents, right?"

Peter put his beer down on a side table. "You think I could convince this Caffrey kid to give up the international highlife to be a CI? You think I could convince the FBI to trust him if he agreed to work with us?"

"Start small. Plant the idea that someone seriously believes he can be something other than a criminal. Maybe, someday, it will make a difference."

"Or maybe he would counter with an explanation of why he thinks crime is his best option. Which could give me the key to turning him around." Peter smiled. "That would be quite the conversation."

Chapter 1

Safe house. NYC. Tuesday, December 2, 2003.

"You're still here?!"

Mozzie's exclamation woke Neal Caffrey, who stretched and took in his surroundings. The view was nothing like the first-class accommodations he'd grown used to on his recent trips to Europe. Lumpy futon. Was there really such a thing as a comfortable futon, or was that just a myth? Interior of a warehouse. Not a loft conversion, but an actual warehouse that just happened to be furnished. And sunlight streaming through the windows. No wonder Mozzie sounded freaked. He did not like for guests to stay overnight in his safe house. "Sorry. I just closed my eyes for a minute when you left to meet with Megan."

"That would have been 337 minutes ago. You said you were going to call Kate and then leave."

Yet another call that had gone unanswered. He'd tried calling a dozen times from Copenhagen, and she kept ignoring him. Neal was surprised that he'd fallen asleep after his latest attempt to reach her. There'd been plenty of time to rest on the flight back from Denmark yesterday, and he'd never suffered from jet lag. "I'll get out of your way." He ran a hand through his hair to look less like he'd just woken up.

"Actually, I'm going to take your presence as an omen that I was right to take Megan up on the opportunity she presented. It means I'll need to subcontract my prior engagement." Mozzie opened a hidden compartment in the sleek table he used for dining and scheming. He pulled out building plans and a plane ticket. "You like the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany. You'll be perfect for this."

That comment distracted Neal from the mystery of his unexpected nap. "Vintage Tiffany stained glass pieces are stunning, but difficult to hide, and too fragile to transport easily. The jewelry would be easier to take, but tricky to fence."

"They have a buyer lined up already."

"They?"

"A crew based in Chicago. There's a client here in New York who wants three specific pieces from the Met's collection. Those pieces are currently on tour."

That explained the plane ticket. "I get it. Art is usually most vulnerable in transit, or when it's sitting in a museum's storerooms waiting to be put on display. It's easier to bring back to New York than to steal it here. So I'm going to Chicago?" Neal had fond memories of hanging out there, visiting the museums and perfecting his skills at forgery after he'd run away from home.

"My contact works throughout the Midwest. The museum they're hitting is in St. Louis. The crew includes a glass artist who created replacements for the pieces the buyer wants, and his job will be to pack up the originals so they don't get damaged. They also have a specialist to disable the security."

St. Louis. He supposed he should think of it as home, but to Neal it represented a network of lies he had escaped at eighteen. Going back was not something he'd considered, but if he was going to return this would be the perfect way to do it – with a theft to show them, figuratively speaking, what he'd become. "What's my part?"

"They need someone to help the artist pack and carry the goods. It has to be someone smart, in case there are complications, because the artist is new to the trade. Just graduated from reproductions to replacements, you might say. And then you'll bring the pieces back to New York." Mozzie placed a brochure for the exhibit on the table and pointed out two vases and a lamp. "These are the items the client wants."

"I admire his taste, but these are bulky. I can't bring them back as carry-on baggage."

"That's why you have a one-way ticket. You'll take a commercial flight to Chicago tomorrow morning. There you'll get on a private plane. And you'll take that same plane back to New York. A pity you can't fly it yourself. Having a pilot involved increases exposure and reduces our cut, but Roland has a guy he trusts."

Neal's eyes widened in surprise. He'd heard stories about Roland, but never thought Mozzie would introduce him. "Isn't he the guy you referred to as your archrival?"

Mozzie shrugged. "Anyone who's any good in this business is my archrival at some juncture. The point is, he's good at this. He'll get everyone in place at the right time, with everything they need. If all goes well, he's just the wheelman. If there's a problem, he handles it."

He handles it. Neal could have said the same of Mozzie, or Keller. They were the people you wanted around when there were problems. Resourceful, experienced, clever - exactly the kind of people an up-and-coming criminal should study, to stay on top of the game. "I look forward to meeting him."

###

"You wanted to see me?" Peter Burke asked.

"Yes. Have a seat." Reese Hughes gestured to the chairs on the opposite side of his desk. "I know I said this last night, but it's worth repeating: Good work with the Townsend case. We couldn't have arrested him if you hadn't figured out how he was spending the money he embezzled."

"Commissioning art thefts. We found the artwork in his home when we served the warrant last night. Last I heard he was making a deal to implicate several people who arranged and committed the thefts." Peter had been sent home at midnight, just as the interrogation was turning into a negotiation for that deal. One minute he'd taken a break to grab a cup of coffee while waiting for Philip Townsend's attorney to arrive, and the next thing Peter knew he was being told to go home.

"That's why we're keeping his arrest quiet for now, so we don't spook his accomplices. We have agents bringing in many of the people Townsend named." Hughes paused. "I know you weren't happy about being sent home."

"I never said that." At least, not until he was home, telling El about his day.

"No, you're too smart to say it. But if you're half the agent I think you are, you're annoyed as hell and want to know why I shut you out." Hughes waited for Peter to nod. "Agent Wiese and I were watching the interrogation when she made an interesting comment, that you and Townsend have a lot in common. Both into sports; both of you studied accounting. You even have a similar build and coloring. Wiese said you did a good job of getting into his head, thinking like he did. She thought that contributed to catching him so quickly."

Peter turned this around in his mind. Wiese had a point, but he felt compelled to mention, "I've caught plenty of criminals I had nothing in common with."

"True," Hughes agreed, "But it gave me an idea, and I wanted you to be awake and alert when I suggested it."

Awake, alert, and driven to prove himself, Peter thought. And Hughes didn't make suggestions. He gave orders. "You want me to go undercover as Townsend."

"The last theft he commissioned hasn't happened yet."

"That's what we'd learned right before you… Before I left," Peter said. He'd hated missing out on questioning Townsend about the details of his latest commission. But he had to admit Hughes had a point. Peter was thinking more clearly this morning. Last night he was focused on simply getting a name from Townsend, but catching the thief in the act of delivering stolen goods would be even better.

"It's going down tomorrow, in St. Louis. He gave us a name of the person leading the crew, a Roland Villiers. Villiers has been on our Chicago office's radar for a while now. He hasn't met Townsend. Everything was arranged through an intermediary. It seems there was a delay, when forgeries that were supposed to be used in Detroit were damaged en route, making this a second attempt. Townsend was impatient, said if he had to pay the same price for a late delivery, he deserved something more. There wasn't time to forge more pieces, but when Villiers offered the chance to participate in the theft, Townsend agreed. He was planning to travel to St. Louis Wednesday morning. You're going in his place."

Peter was interested but had to ask the obvious question. "Why not send someone from the Chicago office?"

"They've pulled Villiers in for questioning half a dozen times in the last few years. As a result, he'd recognize a lot of our agents. And if Villiers is smart, he's asked the intermediary what Townsend looks like." Hughes leaned back in his chair. "On paper, it's simple. We'll give you all the information we have from Townsend, including exactly what he commissioned and what he knows about the plans. You go to Chicago tonight for further briefing, then meet Villiers and his crew tomorrow. At the very least, you'll be able to identify the members of the crew. If we're lucky, we'll get enough details of their plans to arrest them with either the real or forged artwork in their possession."

"But that's on paper," Peter said. "In reality undercover work is rarely that straightforward. Villiers will probably try to keep Townsend on the periphery. The last thing he wants is a non-criminal getting overexcited and setting off alarms."

"Right. And if you can manage your way through that obstacle course, it would give us the big win we want to usher in your new role."

Peter smiled for the first time all morning. "The promotion came through?"

"Congratulations." Hughes stood to shake Peter's hand. "On the fifteenth of this month you'll take the lead role in our new White Collar task force."

A/N: We've created a Pinterest board for the stories in this series, with visuals of characters and locations. The board is named Caffreycon